So It Begins (Too Early)

The first snow fell today. Intermittent flurries of fat white flakes mixed with cold as ice rain. I was about half way through a forty-five minute drive and taking my time travelling the slippery highway. The radio station was playing a decent mix of 80’s hits . . . to which I sang at the top of my voice. Complete with what my daughter would call “car dance moves”. She had some very good ones!

Since seeing a cartoon, earlier today, of two little kids dressed in costumes – but covered with coats, hats, scarves, and mittens because of the snow, I couldn’t stop thinking about an 11 year old Becca on a Halloween long ago.

The weather was much like this . . . with more snow. Her red and white cheerleader costume was covered with her puffy winter coat. I coaxed her into wearing mittens, a hat, and scarf. She wasn’t happy. At each house she insisted on removing all of it to show her costume to the person passing out candy. Just her and I traipsing through the frozen slush. By the time we got home, her voice was hoarse and her cheeks were red and wind chapped. But it didn’t matter because she had fun!

There’s been a lump in my throat since I thought of her, then, this morning. Writing this down has brought forth the tears which have threatened to spill all day. I knew it was bound to happen. The tears coming at some point. Because, Halloween has always been the start of “the holiday season” for us.

So this evening, as I was driving home through the snow, I let myself get lost in the lyrics from four decades ago. I’d just finished a rousing sing-along to “Don’t You Forget About Me” by Simple Minds when the station announced that tomorrow they would be starting ‘the all Christmas music all the time’ for the season. My forced good mood evaporated like the snowflakes hitting the warm windshield.

November 1 to December 25 is an awful long time to hear Christmas carols. Especially when the season ushers in renewed pain for those who are grieving the loss of their child. Nearly two months of joy thrust in our direction. Seven weeks of anticipated celebration. Fifty five days of being reminded our family is one less this year. One less if we are lucky. I know a woman who lost two of her daughters in one crash. I can’t imagine.

I say this every year: I HATE that the holiday season starts earlier each year. The stores try to get us to buy more – buy bigger – buy it all. Hobby Lobby had Christmas items for sale in September! That’s just ridiculous. Greed and materialism drive this time of year. There is no time for sadness! Yet, sadness still exists for many of us.

October 31 is the official start of my yearly personal boxing match. It lasts until the end of January. There are seven difficult dates sprinkled across that length of time. Halloween, Thanksgiving, the boys birthday, Becca’s birthday, Christmas, New Year’s Eve, and the date of my daughter’s death. Spaced every two to three weeks. I barely have time to survive one when another is looming on the calendar. Punch after punch lands squarely on my body and by the time mid January comes around I’m never sure I will survive another 21st. Yet, somehow I do.

For those who have not suffered the loss of a child, please know, we try . . . we really do.

We don’t want to diminish your joy during this season. Or expect you to change what you do because of our loss. Be happy! Sing! Celebrate! Do all of the things we used to do when our family was whole. I know I am jealous I don’t experience the complete happiness I used to before losing Becca. We are happy you don’t understand the pain of an unused Christmas stocking – still hung every year – that once was filled candy canes and chocolate. It’s nearly unbearable.

To the bereaved mommas out there: I see you.

Hiding your tear stained face as you walk past the Christmas decorations for sale in every store. Gritting your teeth as you listen to “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year…” for the millionth time this week alone. Reaching for something that you know your child will love . . . only to remember they aren’t here to receive it. Buying it anyway because you need to continue to give them gifts. Folding your empty aching arms as you watch a small child climb into Santa’s lap. Sobbing into your pillow at night to release the pain you held inside all day. I see you. I am you.

Be gentle with yourself. Be kind to each other. Feel joy when you can. Let the pain be felt, too. It comes from a place of deep love and is a natural emotion stemming from child loss. Join the festivities if you can and don’t be hard on yourself when you can’t. Reach out if you need me.

And, just breath.

Creating A Wall

For the first time, I’ve been asked to write about one particular aspect of child loss. How we seem to push others away. I hope I can answer the question, fully, posed to me. This is written using my own experience and those others have shared with me.  I always hope those struggling with child loss will find a trained professional who is equipped with the knowledge and tools  to help them.

There are so many things that bereaved parents share on this path. Yet, each of our experiences is completely different. Grief is as individual as a fingerprint. Even two people, who have lost the same person, will have their own unique journey. Yet, there are enough similarities that we can recognize where another person is. The subject I’ve been asked to write about is very important because if we don’t recognize it . . . it can destroy us.

All bereaved parents seem to have, at some point, the propensity to push others away from us. The reasons we do this are varied and complex. It’s done both knowingly and without insight. There are times when we can see that we are engaging in this behavior. When we do, we can work through our isolating tendencies with help, so we don’t add more pain to an already anguished situation. Other times, sadly, we don’t see what our actions are doing to those around us, and more importantly, to ourselves.

Over the years, since losing my child, I’ve realized that I had to identify who I was after her death. After the “dust had settled” and life around me went back to everyone else’s normal, mine didn’t. The person I was before no longer existed. Not only did I have to find myself – I had to figure out how I fit into a world that was new to me. I was not a mother to a living daughter anymore. I was the mother of a deceased daughter. An identity I didn’t want and had no idea how to wear. I railed against this change in my who I was.

Please understand: It is going to take us an extremely long time to accept and become comfortable in our new life. We DO NOT want this life we were forced into when our child died. The time it takes for a bereaved parent to come to terms with the death and find peace surrounding it will be different for everyone. Sometimes, it never happens for the person. But, it will be on our personal timetable, no one else’s, and we have to do the work. The tricky part is knowing what work we need to do. There is no “one size fits all” guide.

The simple answer to why we push people away is: vulnerability.

We don’t, as a society, know how to be vulnerable and not feel weak. Instead, we feel as if we are failing when we show emotion, somehow. Especially, men. Vulnerability leaves us open and raw. There is always the chance we will be hurt more. So, we build that wall . . . we push away our family . . . before they have the chance to cause more pain. We are putting a boundary between us and the outside world.

I did this to my twin sons. One of the first blinding insights I had the day Becca was killed was that if something happened to them, I would never survive it. At that moment, I didn’t even know if I was going to survive losing her. So, I told myself I couldn’t love them as much as I did. I had to pull back and create a safe space. I felt relieved when they went to their dad’s because to look at their horrified and tear streaked faces caused my heart to break even more. And, loving them might kill them. Forcing distance between us could keep them safe, and would certainly help me, my fractured mind rationalized. Without the insight of a calm mind I thought we needed a physical separation. Therefore, I allowed it to happen. It was an attempt to protect myself.

Pushing people away, however, happens in non physical ways, too.

Most often, I think, anger sprouts from pain. If we trace the root system backward, and underneath, we usually find it to be true. It is hard to see pain, for what it is, when you are immersed in it. Like trying to gauge the immensity of the ocean when we are at the lowest point between two waves.

When children are little, and don’t have the words to adequately express what they are feeling, they act out. I’m not sure it isn’t the same for adults who don’t have a way to communicate the mass of feelings they are carrying after their child dies.

Responsibility, which can will lead to shame and guilt, when you look behind it. If you don’t take anything away from this blog but the next sentence, then it will still be worth reading. It does not matter if we were with our child at the time of their death, or not, we do feel responsible.

The one job we have as a parent is to protect our child. Our deceased child’s age does not matter, nor does how far away from us they were in the world: wherever, whatever, however, we should have been able to see it and stop it. I was not in the car Becca was killed in. I was not the driver. I didn’t serve the driver alcohol that night. I was home. Asleep. Powerless.

Yet. If my daughter hadn’t seen me go out dancing on the weekends, maybe she wouldn’t have thought it alright to do. If she’d never seen me drink . . . maybe she wouldn’t have ended up at the bar that night. Ridiculous, right? See how easily we can twist facts until we are solely responsible for their death.

Then, sometimes we may actually hold some responsibility. How do we even start to work through that? I am close to someone who believes she owns a portion of the responsibility for her child’s death. Whether she does, or does not, her perception is what matters most. It is the heaviest of weights to believe we caused our child to die. Somehow, we have to figure out how to put it down or it will drive us into the dirt.

To feel we could have saved them, but didn’t, makes us feel powerless, now. All of this emotion has to go somewhere. Either we destroy ourselves or those around us. Usually . . . a bit of both.

The guilt that is coupled with holding responsibility can be debilitating. With the guilt comes the shame. We feel shame in failing. In being part of the circumstances that led to our child dying. We may feel shame at some of our behaviors in the months that follow a child’s death.

These three things: responsibility, guilt, and shame are braided together so tightly – they are sometimes impossible to break because of the strength in which they give to each other. I think this might be one of the hardest aspects of grief to unwind and figure out.

The next part of parental grief I want to talk about is the “others”. The outsiders. The people around us who don’t know what to say, what to do, and often don’t realize they’ve said something which lands like a punch. When this happens to us enough times . . . we don’t allow ourselves to get into situations in which pain is added to us. People say stupid things not knowing any better. Sometimes they do know better yest say it anyway. We lose some friendships. Some relationships because the chasm between us and them is just great to cross.

Seeing intact, happy families, can be unbearable for a bereaved parent’s broken heart. I would time going to the store, late at night, so there was less chance of running into any families. Anger would swell up quickly when I saw mothers and daughters together. Rage. Jealousy. I wanted my child and I would never have her again. I hated the mothers who still had their daughters. Hated. I felt rage toward everyone and everything. I didn’t know where to put the hostility. So, I just stopped being around people.

After our child’s death, after the funeral, we will run into people that we are seeing for the first time since the passing. Of course, they will pay condolences and we have to re answer questions surrounding the whole thing. It’s exhausting. Immediately, we are shoved back into the first days and we relive, and reignite, the deep burning pain. We don’t have to survive these encounters if we just hibernate and see no one.

Other people’s expectations of what grief is often wrong. It’s not neat. It doesn’t run along a straight path. Dealing with A does not lead to B, and so on. The “stages of grief” that people know and expect us to follow is unrealistic. I had a woman call me just months after Becca was killed and asked: are you done crying yet? I blew up at her. After the passing of some time and with a lot of self evaluation I have come to understand what a question like this truly does.

It made me feel like I was failing in how I was grieving. I wasn’t “getting over it” quickly enough. Was I wallowing in self pity?” What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I grieve right?? Truthfully, to this day, I feel as if I’m not far enough along. When we feel judged, whether we can verbalize it or not, we pull away. It’s easier to just be alone.

Being alone can be easier. We don’t have to fake anything for anyone. We aren’t able to understand the maelstrom of emotions that have taken over our minds, yet, we react to them anyway. Sometimes, we even create situations that will force others to leave us. In an attempt to to protect ourselves. Or, to punish ourselves when we feel responsible for our child’s life ending.

The only thing we can do, to help ourselves and others, is to identify why we are isolating and pushing others away. Identify and find the help we need to do the work in order to start truly healing. If we don’t . . . we risk the chance of never finding happiness again. Of losing relationships with those we love. Of never healing.

And, our child wouldn’t want that for us.

Both

In Michigan, we are lucky enough to enjoy all four seasons. Though some years, it seems, that we are hurried through one of them by Mother Nature’s insistence to hurry on to the next. Winter has always been my favorite season of the four. For two very different reasons.

First, I absolutely loved snow days when the kids were home from school. The outside world, and all its problems, didn’t matter for a while. There was nothing to worry about except what was right in front of us. The pure whiteness of the fresh snow begged the children to go outdoors. I’d spend about half an hour bundling them all up from head to toe then send them out the front door. Becca always seemed to come in before her brothers were ready. Little kids seem to endure cold temperatures much better than those who are older. When they did finally give in to the elements they’d come inside with sopping wet clothes and wind chapped cheeks. Becca would help them get out of their snow stuff as I made hot cocoa for all of us. Somehow, they would be sweaty under their clothing, their hair curly from the moisture and their hats, and they’d wrap their small hands around warm mugs. Sometimes, they even had whipped cream with peppermint sticks to stir their drink!

When they were very young . . . a nap usually followed an afternoon of outdoor fun. Little ones can endure the cold but when they get back into the warmth of indoors they tend to become drowsy. They’d fall into a deep sleep, bellies full of chocolate and faces sticky from the peppermint candy. Becca might take a nap, too. Or if I was really lucky she’d nestle up next to me on the couch and we’d watch a movie cuddled together under a blanket.

As they boys grew older, naps tended to fall away from favor, and I’d often be able to cajole them into a game or two. Our family has only two games we play together. Yahtzee, which I absolutely love . . . and Sorry! which generally ends in a fight because Gabriel hates how Matthew counts the squares by tapping his finger. And, I think Matthew might aggravate his brother on purpose. We STILL talk about it to this day!

Snow days, when we were all home together, were perfect every single time.

The second reason I prefer winter over any other season is because the outer world matches my inner self. Not icy, though I’ve been accused of that a few times in the past. But rather, I am not all sunny and happy and full of fun. Even before Becca’s death I wasn’t. Winter just matches me. It makes sense. Isolation isn’t seen as something bad when everyone is stuck inside of their homes. The beach isn’t full of throngs of people – every one of them having the best day of their lives. Michigan is beautiful in each season though summer here is the one that is talked about the most. It seems almost taboo to not be full of life during this time of the year. In winter, no one is insisting that you “come to the beach” or “come out on the boat” or “we’re having a campfire”. Fun things, yes, but hard for a bereaved mother to enjoy when all she can think of is her own child missing out.

Summer isn’t me. Winter is my time. The quiet solitude of the lake, beach, and forests. The coldness in the air is sharp. Images, in front of my eyes, seem clearer and more focused. I feel more alive. More at peace. Calm. This is the space for introspective and contemplative thinking. The darkness that comes as night falls earlier across the land lulls me into a dream like state. My thoughts have endless hours to chase each other and form themselves into something with weight. There is time to poke and prod and investigate what my soul is trying to tell me. The world, covered with a blanket of snow, is quiet enough for me to hear them. Still enough for me to listen. I find myself to be most creative during these coldest months of the year.

But, with the turn of the seasonal wheel, winter brings my most difficult days. The holidays are hard, for sure, but I have my own personal important dates mixed in with them, too. I’ve often said this time of year is like being in a boxing ring for me. Though I try to prepare, one hit after the other lands on me with stunning accuracy. Halloween marks the beginning of the match and Feb. 1 is the ringing of the final bell. Roughly every two and a half weeks during that period I am gut punched and I fall to my knees. Barely on my feet . . . another punch sends me to the mat.

Interestingly, my favorite season is also my most painful. I guess, in an odd way, this makes perfect sense. The deepest love I have in this life, that which I hold for my children, also causes me the most intense pain. With great light comes great darkness.

I guess that is the truth of the world. Without warmth would we know what cold actually felt like? Sorrow isn’t as deep when we don’t have the joy to measure it against. Life isn’t as precious unless we know the void left by losing it. We grieve as deeply as we love. It’s the price of being human.

So, here’s to winter. It blew in last night appearing to have every intention of staying for a while. I am joyful to know the world matches my soul again and will rejoice in the beauty it brings. The love I have for my deceased child will be matched with intense anguish that is brought to the surface during these icy days.

Beautifully painful. Or painfully beautiful.

I imagine . . . it’s both.

 

Gifts Given

Each one of my children has an artist’s soul. This is one of the good things I have passed down to them! I’ve watched as they’ve heard the callings of the artist’s song and turned this into a creation! From when they were all little, chubby hands wrapped around thick crayons, each spent hours drawing at our kitchen table. As they grew so did their chosen medium change. Gabriel is a very talented illustrator. Matthew can capture an image with perfection. Both can weave words into stories that will captivate the reader. They have the expressiveness that a child of mine would come by naturally.

Watching them create, through the years, has been wonderful for me. Recently, I’ve seen my twin sons talents blossom exponentially. Even using these gifts to work in media and make the world a better place. I can not wait to see what the future holds for them . . . and their art!

But, for my daughter, the story is different. All that she will create has been created. There is no waiting excitedly for the next thing she does. Her contribution to the artistic world is complete.

A few years before Becca lost her life she had started to work with oil paints. In my closet I have the small wooden box she used to carry her supplies. Little tubes of paint, a few brushes, a palette knife, and some crumpled up paper towels. I’ve opened the box, a few times, to peer inside. It’s too painful to do this too often. So, usually, I just hold it and cry.

I have a small watercolor she did, with my father, when she was about eleven. You can tell where he started the line of trees and she took over and finished them. I also have a frame which holds four crayon drawings she did when she was three or so. The red one is me, blue my mom, green my sister, and purple my father. I remember the day she drew them.

She and I were sitting at the kitchen table together. I was sketching and she was trying to copy me. At such a young age she managed to capture the important details of our likenesses very well. I love looking at the pictures and remembering that day.

I thought I had, in my possession, all of the pieces of her art that I would ever have. Then, Friday happened. And, I was given an incredible gift.

In 2004, my daughter was dating a young man named Jose. His family is Catholic. My daughter decided to make both he, and his mother, gifts. One, I knew about, the other I did not. The one I had seen was an oil painting depicting a religious figure. I remember her agonizing over whether it was good enough to give to her. I told her: it’s beautiful, honey, she’ll love it. And, she did.

I have a photograph of the painting. Looking at it makes me obsess about getting real thing. Then, the stars started to move into place to allow me to do just that!

Joseph, for those of you who don’t know, is the driver that took my daughter’s life almost twelve years ago. Joseph works with a young woman who is engaged to my daughter’s boyfriend. Ex-boyfriend? Old boyfriend? I’m not sure how to describe him. Anyway, there is the connection to me getting my daughter’s painting. Joseph asked the young woman, the young woman asked either her fiance or his mother, and Friday the painting was given to me. Not just one, however, but two pieces of my daughter’s art!

I told Joseph I would come to his office to get the paintings on my lunch hour. Waiting for noon to arrive was very difficult. I kept checking the clock. I was actually going to get the painting I’d wished I could have! Then, a text from Joseph, he was going to lunch and would be back at twelve thirty. Alright. I adjusted my plans. At about twelve twenty I left my job and drove to his.

When I was walking up to the double glass doors into his building I began to shake. The feeling you get when you aren’t sure your legs are going to hold you up anymore nevermind propel you forward. I entered the lobby and there was a young woman sitting behind the desk. I know I stuttered when I said I was there to see Joseph. I told her my first name and she finished up the exchange with my last. A minute passed before I realized that THIS was the woman engaged to my daughter’s boyfriend.

I was ready to pick up my daughter’s painting but I was not ready to be face to face with this young lady. Let me be clear, I do not have any ill feelings toward her, I just wasn’t prepared to see who had taken Becca’s place. As a bereaved mother, it is hard to see the world move in and fill the hole left by the death of our child. I instantly started to cry even though I fought against the tears.

Joseph was running late so I sat on a couch and waited for him. The young woman, so kind, came around the counter and asked if she could give me a hug. I think I was in a type of shock. Overwhelmed at the very least. We made small talk while I waited for Joseph.

With apologies, he came through a glass door carrying a red bag that held the painting. I hugged him, thanked him, then said I wasn’t ready to look at the painting there. I would wait until I was alone. On legs I was afraid were going to betray me . . . I hurried out of the building.

I pulled into the first parking lot I came to and wiped my tears away. I reached into the bag and there were two pieces inside! Joseph had told me there were actually two but wasn’t sure I could be that lucky until I was touching both of them. First, I pulled out the larger canvas that was the painting I had dreamed of getting back since my daughter died. There, in front of me, was the image of Mary my daughter painted in oils. She was breathtaking. Simple lines. Vivid colors. Religious imagery. Just perfect. And, now it was mine.

The second piece of art was framed in gold. A color pencil drawing of Jesus Christ with a prayer written in Spanish below it. I’d never seen this one before. A piece of my child that I hadn’t known existed was now in my possession. I can not tell you what a rare gift this is for me! Knowing that all that my child will add to the world has been done it’s amazing to find something new and unexpected.

As I held the two pieces I felt as if I was holding a bit of my Becca. An extension of her soul. It’s taken me a few days to write this blog because I selfishly wanted to keep these pieces of my child to myself. I feel contentment in having them near me. I believe they are where they belong.

I did show photographs of the art to a few people close to me. My spirit soared when two of them made the comment: wow, she paints in the same style that you do! Someone else told me that her Mary painting was very reminiscent of the painting I entered into Artprize 2015 “Our Becca”. And, incredibly, it is. My heart is warmed with the thought that I passed down my ability to paint to my daughter. I can see myself in the things my boys do, artistically, and now I can see it in Becca, as well.

I would like to extend many thanks to the people involved in getting these priceless objects to me. I imagine it wasn’t easy to give up a piece of a girl you loved, too. Thank you, Joseph, for being the bridge connecting the two sides together. I did not think my wish for the painting would be answered but it is very fitting that it was answered through you.

The world is an amazing place. Gifts are given all of the time.

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Keys

“Can you tell me about being engaged while you were in prison,” I asked last night.

So, he does, in detail. Painful detail . . . for both of us I imagine. Him, because the engagement didn’t result in marriage. Me, because it put a finer point on one of the things my daughter never had the chance to experience. True love.

Without giving too much detail into his story, as it is not my place to do so, I’ll quickly summarize what he shared. A previous girlfriend went to his side after the crash that killed my child. They rekindled their romance and even became engaged. The union broke while he was still in prison and she has since moved on. All of this, he told me through texts and to his credit, he was completely honest.

In my head, I started a parallel timeline of events in each of our lives.

He had someone at his bedside in those first few days. Someone who loved him and wanted to give him comfort. I was at my daughter’s side, for only a moment, at the morgue . . . once. A day later, they performed the autopsy. I was told I could not know when her body was being transported to the funeral home. All I wanted to do was be by my baby’s side through her last travels on earth. I just wanted to do what a mother must do . . . tend to her child. Whether alive or dead.

He had someone supporting him from his sentencing and into his incarceration. I don’t begrudge him this person, this relationship. But if I am honest with myself . . . it hurts me that something positive came from his choice to drink and drive and I faced nothing but anguish from day one. He found love. I found sorrow that soaked deep into my bones.

Two and a half years into our side by side journeys he had the opportunity to propose to his girlfriend. A momentous occasion. The decision to spend the rest of their lives together. Years to fill with love, family, and memories. Thirty months into my journey, I was still reeling and was making a mess of my life because I wasn’t sure I wanted it anymore. All I could see were years upon years, stacked up in front of me, full of empty spaces in which Becca would have lived.

About a year before his release he broke the engagement. He’s shared his reasons with me but I think they fall under the heading of: not mine to share, so I won’t. I am sure this was a painful time for him and there is a part of me that thought: now you know what it’s like to not have the future you envisioned. I don’t mean that in a cruel way . . . I’m just stating a fact. For one moment I feel he knew a portion of the pain of a lost future.

I wept for most of the night . . . even when I slept. My dreams shifted so quickly I couldn’t catch hold of them. Images were blurred. I got no real rest. Or, relief from my thoughts. I woke with a renewed heavy feeling of loss. A deeper sense of what my daughter lost when she died that night.

I struggled with whether I had the right to tell Joseph how his story made me feel.

My other thought was: what if I tell him, and he feels as if he’s caused me increased pain, and decides he won’t give me the full story next time. I sent him a text, that simply read, “full disclosure?” He replied, “About?”

“I cried last night thinking about how Becca never had the chance to be in love. Your story stirred profound sadness in me. No anger. Just bone deep sorrow,” I wrote to him.

His reply, “I hesitated because I thought it might.”

I think our brain works in amazing ways we barely understand. It has an incredible ability to filter what we feel in order to keep our minds from imploding from the weight of the entire truth. It knows how to keep us safe. Maybe, our brain and our soul coordinate things and do their best to keep us from disintegrating completely. When they both are in agreement as to what time to dispense information is best . . . then we are allowed the knowledge. And, possibly, a key is required to unfasten the lock.

I have come to realize, and accept, that Joseph holds many of the keys I need to unlock deeper healing. I think it completely natural that his life is a sort of measuring stick as to what Becca has lost. The crash is a set point in the past that started a new future for them both. Lack of a future for my child, unfortunately.

Joseph apologized for causing me pain with his story. He said he didn’t want to bring those feeling about in me. I told him those feelings were already there. They are always there. I had dealt with some of them, already, to a point. Just like everything else . . . it takes more than one time to make it last. His story could have been the key I needed to unlock deeper mourning. Deeper mourning I need to do in order to bring about more complete healing.

The knowledge we gain is a chance for either more complete understanding, or increased pain, in any given situation. Sometimes we don’t have the ability to choose either one. Our mind and soul choose for us. Thankfully, they agreed that I am ready for broader healing within myself and concerning Joseph. Moving toward more understanding regarding my Becca’s death.

I think our healing capacity is not limited. Rather, it is boundless. Ever growing. Deepening and widening and can encompass all. I hope so, at least.

Sometimes, the key lies somewhere other than in ourselves.

We must keep searching to heal.

Be Brave

Today, I sent another message to the driver that killed my daughter. It’s been a little over a week since we last exchanged texts. Or has it been two? In the last response he sent me, in connection with meeting each other face to face, he said I could take my time in setting a date.

I sat with his words from a Sunday to a Tuesday. Either nine days . . . or sixteen. I guess the actual length of time doesn’t matter. What matters is why I sat passively as the days clicked past. My idleness wasn’t because I’d changed my mind in meeting him. Rather, I needed to digest what making contact with him meant. I had a lot to work through.

I’d purposefully decided to veer off course and take a new path. A path that will lead me into his world. One that will allow him to set foot in my life, welcomed. We will be creating a new reality, together. A new ending to a tragic story that could have had multiples tragedies along the way.

But, before I could do that, I had to come to terms with many ideas and feelings I’ve been carrying since January 21, 2017. Where I am now, though it’s a painful existence, it’s safe. There is a security in knowing that I feel a wrenching anguish, each day, concerning the absence of my only daughter. Today was sad, every day is sad, and tomorrow will be no different. There is an odd comfort in knowing this. A solid painful place is still solid.

So, I had to slow down and just “be” in the place I am for a little longer. For eleven years I have lived with him being the “drunk driver” in my head. He has been faceless for the entire time.  An undefined male image. As I’ve said before . . . he’s remained the twenty three year old he was when this all happened. He’s been a fleeting picture in my thoughts. One of Becca’s friends recently said to me “he isn’t a faceless monster any more”. And, indeed, he is not.

In reaching out to him I have set into motion an entirely different future for us both. It reminds me of the in between space I stood in on that cold highway wondering if it was my child who was dead. Moving from the life we all had together into the new one that didn’t include her. Waiting in the dark for the information that would catapult me into the “after”. Those precious moments from when I was told it was my Becca until someone I knew positively identified her at the crash scene. Minutes I could almost convince myself that I could stay put in the life I loved. Having someone who knew Becca, tell me that yes . . . it’s her, closed a door on our life together and forced me into a new room. It will forever be the point marking the before and the after.

Meeting him will be the same kind of moment. In a different way. I feel as if I will be exiting the dark room I’ve existed in for a little over a decade and entering another that will be much lighter. It is another before and after moment. These points are always life altering. And, I needed to rest and gain strength in order to face the shift. So, I lay on the plateau I had reached by connecting with him.

The years since her death have been heartbreaking. The path I’ve been on has some sharp ups and downs. But now I realize it’s been on a steady incline since the day she died. I never noticed this until right now. I have been ascending, all this time, to the upcoming meeting.

It’s been such a long climb up to this most recent ledge. I’ve found myself bare, bleeding, and bruised. Not sure I had enough strength to go any higher. Then, this level ground appeared and I decided I needed to rest in the “in between” for a little while. Remain in this new light pondering this new life. However, I know that I can not stay here indefinitely. It’s not the end destination for me. Or, for this story. Instead, it’s a place to take a respite from the gut wrenching reality of her being gone. And, it’s a new beginning.

I liked it here. In the in between. As I said . . . it is safely predictable. A segment of time bookended by the letter to him and meeting him. I know I can not set up household here. It’s not meant to be my new home. Being here is starting to feel wrong because it’s been too long. Not a place of deserved rest as it had initially, but a place to hide away from this big thing. Today, I finally sat up and acknowledged that my time here is done. No more inaction. The time has arrived to start climbing again.

So, in the spirit of moving toward healing, I messaged him again. I asked him what days and times work for our meeting. He said weekends. Weekend afternoons. I replied with “A Sunday”? He said yes.

There it is then. A more concrete plan. Not completely worked out . . . but forward movement.

Today I stepped firmly on the path that will lead to our meeting. I am glad I had a chance to rest because it’s made me feel strong enough to traverse this new section of my healing journey.

We will meet on a Sunday afternoon, which seems appropriate because Becca died on a Sunday, but I’m not sure of which one, yet.

Small steps give surety to my footing and balance to this journey.

Always, in memory of you my beautiful girl.

 

Again.

A few weeks ago one of my twin sons, Gabriel, came to visit me in the town to which I’d recently moved. I was so excited when he told me he was going to visit! There were two “firsts” I was looking forward to. One, he hadn’t seen the historic home we’d moved into and I was eager to show it to him. Two, he was bringing a young lady he’d been dating for a while and this was going to be our first meeting. The visit was everything I had expected . . . and more!

Since losing my daughter it’s been a struggle to feel truly happy. I have had moments of happiness, which have grown longer and larger, but the day he spent with me a few Sundays ago really made me feel confident that life was going to be ok. I told him this, too. Always with the qualifier “without your sister here” so as not sound like I’m over her passing. As I said those words to him, “I’m really as happy as I can be” . . . I meant them. Both of my sons were doing well. Working. Living. Loving. What else can a mother want? I have it all. (except for my daughter).

I felt certain that the hardest part of life was behind us. I was satisfied this was the truth. Then, on a beautifully sunny Saturday, lightning struck twice. It was as if some invisible hand had parted the clouds, picked me up by the back of my shirt, and dropped me right back into the day my daughter was killed.

I was at work when I received a phone call that began with these few words:

“Mom, listen to me . . . I want you to know he’s alive.”

I started to spin out of control quickly because my son, Matthew, kept saying:

“MOM! MOM! He’s alive . . . calm down . . . Mom, I need you to calm down . . .”

I flew out of the bathroom, already running and telling anyone that would listen, I had to leave NOW. Standing in the back warehouse, with all three of my bosses looking at me, I was asking my son if his twin brother was in a coma. I was yelling. I was spinning around, in place, with one hand across my forehead in disbelief. How could this be happening. Again. I’ve already lost one child . . . didn’t this mean the chance of losing another was nearly zero? Wasn’t closing down the life of your child like a vaccination of sorts?

What I remember hearing in that first conversation with my son was that his brother had been in a bad crash. He told me where Gabriel was: a hospital in Flint. Flint is 113.6 miles from my job. Travel time is 1 hour and 39 minutes. At that moment it might as well have been half way across the world. They were too far away. I was frantic

I have recollection of Matthew telling me there was no brain damage. Holy shit, I thought, this is really bad. There didn’t seem to be any paralysis, either. Holy fuck, how bad is it when they are checking for those things? I must have asked my son if he was telling me everything, or if he was telling me the truth, because he kept saying:

“I promise, Mom, I’m not holding anything back. Please, don’t rush here, I need you to drive safely. He’s ok.”

I didn’t believe him. I was CERTAIN he was holding the most devastating information back because he didn’t want me to speed and have my own crash. Was he downplaying the truth of his brother’s condition so I wouldn’t drive like a maniac to get there? Yes! My mind told me. YES!!! It screamed at me! “YOUR CHILDREN DIE!!” I kept shaking my head as my son tried to calm me, console me, make me believe his brother was, indeed, alive.

“I need you to be ok, Mom!! Promise me you won’t speed, promise me you’ll be careful!”

All I kept saying was, “I have to leave . . . I have to go . . . I have to get there now . . . I know you aren’t telling me the truth . . .”

I was in my car and on the street within seconds. I didn’t know what to do first. I needed air in my tires but I couldn’t waste the time getting them filled – there wasn’t enough gas in my van yet it would take too long to fill it up – how far could I get on what there was . . .

I think I drove in circles in the parking lot, trying to figure out what I needed to do first, because I had to keep moving. I had to be doing something. I was literally spinning my tires in panic.

Fortunately, a coworker messaged me and told me she didn’t want me going alone. I had it in my head that I just needed to get on the highway and get the hell across the state. She told me that Joe, a high school friend of the boys, would go with me. I almost ignored her message, turning left toward the highway instead of turning right and going back to work. I didn’t and having Joe with me for the long ride helped.

As we drove toward the highway I filled him in on what little I knew. Something inside of me told me that I had to hold it together for Joe. I was the adult, even though Joe is 24, and I had to appear calm for him. As I explained Gabe’s condition (as I knew it to be) I tried to hold back the tears. Why was I able to remain calm for someone else but not myself?

In between conversations with Joe, about mundane things, horrible thoughts were racing through my mind.

Would my child have a cognitive disability. I know Matthew said no brain damage but he could be just saying that. Gabriel is sarcastic and fast witted and intelligent. In a lot of ways, he is my most difficult child, always testing the boundaries and not caring about consequences. He’s thoughtful and philosophical and questions everything. Full of angst. At times, it seems, he carries the sadness of generations that have come before him. An artist’s soul with a deep well of emotions. What would I do if I had to look into his beautiful eyes and know he’s lost part of who he was? Would he be aware that he had been permanently changed? Somewhere deep in his mind would he know he wasn’t fully himself anymore? Would this realization sadden him? Or was there a chance that he might never know who he was before this crash?

These thoughts rushed in but I kept pushing them back so I could concentrate on the highway.

Oh my god. What if he is hurt badly enough that he spends the rest of his life in a wheelchair? I know Matthew told me there wasn’t that kind of damage but my son knows me well enough to be concerned that I would drive well over the speed limit to get to them. What if Gabriel could no longer use his legs? Both boys played soccer in high school and continue to play to this day. Gabriel recently discovered a love for disc golf. Are the courses wheelchair accessible? His arms. Paralysis could include his arms! How in the world would he feel if he could no longer run or kick or shoot a baskeball?

Which would be better? A cognitive issue, or a physical one? Would one be easier to overcome than the other? How would Gabriel approach the loss of either one? OR BOTH?? Oh my god. Oh my god. Oh my god.What the fuck!! Why did the miles seem endless as I sped toward the east side of the state?! I needed to touch my child. Matthew needed me there, too. I am the mom. I am supposed to make everything right. No matter their age . . . children still look to their parents for guidance. I had to get there and DO.

I was told the car flipped between 40 and 50 mph. No airbags deployed. Unsure of seat belts. The crash happened in a construction zone and wasn’t found for a few hours. A female officer knocked on their father’s door to ask if they knew a Gabriel Kelly. She said there was a crash and he was in serious condition. I was told by the boys’ stepmother that Matthew anguished over what to say when he called me. He had to give me the news yet keep me calm enough so that I didn’t freak out (which I did anyway) and hurt myself getting there. Then Matthew had to sit next to his twin brother’s bed, while doctors and nurses tended to him, all the while wondering if he’d just lost another sibling. Trying to remain calm as old wounds were opened and blood started to spill. Angry at his brother but thrilled he was alive. Matthew had also been placed in a space from eleven years ago . . . instantaneously.

On a beautiful late summer day, the kind that can only be found in Michigan, Matthew and I were standing on that cold gray highway in January again.This time it wasn’t me trying to protect him, but instead, him attempting to shelter me. Side by side, we sat at the foot of Gabe’s bed, and just looked at him. Grateful when he surfaced out of the drug induced sleep long enough to say something. Crying when he would moan from the pain. Matthew told me how much it hurt to see his brother this way. That he wished he could take the pain away. I wished I could take the pain from both of them into myself.

A few days after the crash, when my mind settled down enough to move from the emergency state, I thought: Damn it! That is what I get for saying I was happy. For thinking life was going to be good. To be openly optimistic and hopeful. Life said: Yeah? Watch this. Then it proceeded to recrumble the ground beneath my feet. Why? Why did another tragedy have to happen? I’ve had enough! My family has had enough. In the past I’ve half joked around about having been Hitler in my previous life because I was getting a good amount of karmic payback in this one, it seemed. There should be a quota for the number of children on mother can lose. Can we ink that in somewhere? Who do I need to talk to?

My son is alive. We have a future together . . . all three of us. Matthew will heal from the terror and pain he’s been feeling for the past week. He’ll be carefree and optimistic and full of joy again. His playful nature will resurface when he can put the weight of this event down. Gabriel’s healing will be slow but eventually he will be back to the sarcastic funny kid we know. And, out walking the disc golf course “meditating” as he calls it.

Lightning does strike twice in the same place. I have no immunity because my daughter was killed. Any confidence I had that my two boys would be safe because we’ve already faced this is completely gone. There are no rules in child loss. We must not take any part of being a parent for granted. I don’t think life came after me because I was too smug or cocky. Well, most of me doesn’t. But it’s going to take a very long time until I feel “safe” concerning my children again.

Gabriel will be coming to stay with me for a while soon. I will be able to mother him and help him heal. I can hold his hand and tell him how much I love him. We can talk about what he’s feeling. He can tell me about his sister being at the crash, and watching over him, more completely.

Please, for me, if you are able . . . go hug your children.

You never know when a storm might be brewing.